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The magic is in the making: Chris Gemkow and the music production program

February 7, 2019

York is unique for a lot of reasons, sporting, among other things: a ridiculously good drama club, a ridiculously good competitive dance team, and a ridiculously good Vanessa. But one aspect of the school that often goes unrecognized lives in a room tucked into a corner of the music department: the music production program.

Chris Gemkow has led the charge to turn York into a wellspring of songwriters, both through the Amateur Musicians Club, which he heads, and the three levels of the music production classes, which he has focused specifically on what he thinks students want to be learning.

“… That’s how the Amateur Musicians club evolved was I just set it free and I just followed where the students went. And that’s kinda what I was doing with Music Production, was I think there’s a value in not knowing what you’re doing cause the possibilities are wide open,” Gemkow said. “I think that the students are gonna determine what I’m going to do for them.”

This attitude is a fairly unconventional one for a teacher, as many educators tailor their assignments to the Common Core curriculum and don’t add much variety year to year. Gemkow changes his students’ projects constantly, always with the goal of enlarging perspectives on what is possible for young music makers.

His approach has clearly yielded good results. Just this past weekend, four of Gemkow’s students were honored at the state-wide ILMEA convention in the composition competition. Seniors Austin Brown, Ben Pavlik, and sophomore Anna Collins each placed, with senior Maya Toffler receiving an honorable mention. No other school came close to York’s dominance of the commercial/popular music category, but Gemkow, predictably, demurred when asked about his role in his students’ success.

“I can’t take credit for her [Madds Buckley’s] talent and her dedication to practice and learning different instruments. I can’t take credit for that,” Gemkow said in reference to one of his former students, who is currently studying songwriting at the Berklee College of Music. “…something I’m able to do is see… The songwriter that is within that person. I can draw it out. It’s there. It’s just like I’m trying to coax it out into the open, and just kinda be there to say ‘You’re really good, this is good stuff’.”

ILMEA isn’t the only part of the music world that York students are making waves in. In the past two years, four songwriters from York have been accepted to the Berklee College of Music. Berklee has an incredibly selective program, and for any high school to have multiple students admitted is an impressive feat. Bridey Costello, a senior at York, and a recent admit to Berklee for vocal performance, says that Gemkow has been a driving force behind her success.

“I think the fact that he kept pushing me last year to keep writing songs,” Costello said. “It’s all thanks to him, honestly. And he’s the best teacher I’ve ever had.”

It’s an interesting factoid, then, that Gemkow didn’t start out with the intention to pursue a career in music. He began his time at York as an English and special education teacher, and only transitioned into his music production position when Mr. Riddle, the music department chair, offered him the opportunity.

“[When I started] I just took a chance on first saying “Yes, I’m gonna do it” and then jumping in and learning as I went,” Gemkow said.

That can-do approach is one that seems to be a theme of his work. His leap into teaching music stems from the same certainty he has that all students, given time, can become songwriters.

“I think I say it a lot, probably every semester when someone tells me “I’m not good at writing songs”. And I’ll say “Ok well. Are you good at speaking German?” And they’ll say “No.” “And well, have you ever tried? No? Well you could take a class and you could become better at speaking German.” Same thing with song writing,” Gemkow said.

Songwriting and music is often looked at as a art only for a select few, but Chris Gemkow is working to make it the work of the masses.

“[I want to] identify those kids that maybe didn’t connect to the music program in high school because they didn’t think there was a place for them,” Gemkow said.

Judging by the incredible work being turned out by the music production classes, and success students are having in this realm beyond high school, Gemkow has accomplished what he set out to do.

Check out last year’s album project

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